Post-classical history


Svein Estrithson

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HARALD REMAINED IN Kiev for two years, until 1045, for reasons that remain obscure. Was Harald advising Yaroslav on the protracted negotiations with Byzantium that followed the disastrous war of 1043? Or was Yaroslav, aware of the Norse custom of polygamy, reluctant to allow his daughter to depart for a life in the northern lands, where she might be set aside on a whim? Maybe Harald was hoping to use the prosperous state treasury of Kiev as a kind of bank in which he could deposit the vast treasure which, so Adam of Bremen reports, it took twelve of the strongest young men to lift? For a while at least Harald was prepared to let the pent-up waves of his fame wash over him in Russia, as more and more tales of his exploits percolated from Byzantium. It was even said that there was a great marble lion in Piraeus (where Harald had never been) covered with runic inscriptions describing his deeds of valour.1

But at last Harald was able to return to his homeland. Travelling from Kiev via Novgorod, he arrived in the spring of 1045 with a private army at Ladoga on Lake Ladoga, not far from present-day St Petersburg, and from there, in the summer, entered Sweden. Olaf, king of Sweden, was Elizabeth’s grandfather and Astrid, the king’s sister, was the mother of Svein Estrithson, then also fortuitously at the court of Sweden. At this stage Harald’s relations with the man who was to be his lifelong enemy were cordial but it may be, as Svein later alleged, that Harald was merely using him and everyone he met for his own design of gaining the Norwegian throne. Svein began to interest him in an alliance, with the aim of securing kingdoms for them both: Svein in Denmark and Harald in Norway.

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The Viking homelands

Harald did indeed have his eye on the Norwegian throne, but his ambition was unlikely to be realized in the short term, for the young king Magnus was a ruler of exceptional quality: wise and enlightened in policy as well as a doughty warrior in battle. The alliance of Cnut and the Norwegian aristocracy which overthrew Olaf Sigurdsson at Stiklestad did not prosper, especially in face of the lightning growth of the cult of the late king, who was now openly referred to as ‘St Olaf’. Cnut’s son Svein, who ruled Norway from Denmark from 1030 to 1034, made the further mistake of trying to turn the northern kingdom into an economic appanage of the Danes. A humiliating attempt to summon a thing in Nidaros in the winter of 1033–34, which no one attended, led Svein to fear the worst and withdraw to Denmark. In 1035 Magnus, son of Olaf Sigurdsson, was proclaimed king and restored effortlessly.2

Cnut died in 1036 and there ensued the struggle for mastery between Harold Harefoot and Harthacnut over the succession in England. In order to concentrate on this and to ensure he was not attacked in the rear by Norway, Harthacnut signed a treaty with Magnus at the mouth of the Gotha river in 1038. Harthacnut recognized the independence of Norway and, in a separate compact, it was agreed that when one of them died the other would inherit his kingdom. Having settled Norway’s external relations, Magnus then faced the problem of the Norwegian aristocracy who (in his eyes) had murdered his father. He identified Kalv Arnesson as the chief culprit, invited him to tour the battlefield of Stiklestad with him, and there and then accused him of Olaf’s murder. Kalv stowed all his portable property on board ship and left the kingdom the very same night, fleeing first to Thorfinn, Earl of the Orkneys, and later embarking on a career as a pirate in Ireland and the north of Scotland.3

Magnus then effectively declared war on the other great Norwegian oligarchs who had opposed Olaf at Stiklestad, confiscating their estates and refusing them due legal process. Einar Tambarskjelver, the greatest magnate of all, who had taken no part in the Stiklestad campaign against Olaf but who had been a deadly rival of Kalv, became a close friend and adviser of Magnus and admonished him not to risk civil war by such draconian actions. According to tradition, Magnus paid no heed and was determined to continue with his vendetta, until he was won over by a song entitled ‘Bersoglisvisur’, composed by the skald Sighvat Thordsson. Seeing the light, Magnus had a sudden change of heart, abandoned his autocratic ways and pledged himself to the rule of law.4

In 1042 Harthacnut died, to be succeeded in England by Edward the Confessor. In accordance with the Gotha river agreement, Magnus claimed Denmark as his own and set out to take it by force but was acclaimed king without having to fight; to Edward the Confessor he wrote that out of compassion for his harsh early life he would waive his claim to the English throne for Edward’s lifetime but reserved his right to reclaim it then. Yet by 1045 he was writing to Edward in harsher terms and there is even evidence that he intended to invade England that year until war with Svein Estrithson supervened.5

The genius of the young Magnus as king showed itself in his ability to deal with three or four serious crises simultaneously. A running sore throughout his reign was the situation in the Orkneys, nominally a Norwegian possession but in reality virtually independent. At the time of Magnus’s accession the Orkneys were ruled by Earl Thorfinn, Sigurd’s son and uncle to Rognvald Brusisson. Wishing to assert sovereignty over the islands, Magnus sent Rognvald Brusisson to Kirkwall, capital of the Orkneys, to request that Thorfinn should give Rognvald his patrimony, viz. a third part of the islands. Thorfinn acceded but the contumacious Rognvald brooded away, convinced he should really have been given two-thirds of the Orkneys and Shetlands – the share his father Brusi had had in St Olaf’s day. The result was a feud that endured for eight years (1038–46).6

To assuage Brusisson’s feelings Thorfinn agreed to make over two-thirds of the Orkneys to Rognvald, provided he retained the Shetlands, but Brusisson’s was an all-or-nothing mentality. Finally, in 1046, Thorfinn, having built up a powerful military following in the Shetlands and northern Scotland, invaded Rognvald’s domain, overran his territories and forced him to flee for his life to Norway. There he lamented his fate to a sympathetic Magnus; preoccupied with other wars, Magnus could not give him much direct help but promised Kalv Arnesson a pardon if he would fight for Rognvald. Brusisson raised a new fleet, which clashed with Thorfinn’s armada in the Pentland Firth in 1046, while Kalv Arnesson and his forces looked on, undecided which side to support. Finally, finding himself in danger of defeat, Thorfinn sent an urgent plea to Kalv, who at last committed himself and was instrumental in Rognvald’s rout. Thorfinn then took possession of all the islands and Kalv Rognvald’s old domain in the Shetlands.7

Brusisson was reduced to desperate measures. In the winter of 1046 he led a commando raid with a single ship’s crew, hoping to assassinate Thorfinn in Pomona. The raiding party burnt down the earl’s house, but Thorfinn and his wife escaped and rowed over to Caithness. Nothing daunted, Thorfinn tried to turn the tables on Rognvald, burning down his abode just before Christmas. Rognvald got clear of the blazing house but was found skulking on the shore by one of Thorfinn’s men named Thorkel Fosterer. Concealing the news of their leader’s death, Thorfinn then surprised Rognvald’s followers in Kirkwall, massacred most of them, and executed thirty members of Magnus’s personal bodyguard that he had sent over with Rognvald, sparing just one so that he could take the news back to Magnus. Incandescent with rage, Magnus was locked in warfare on several fronts and unable to take punitive action. In an evil hour Thorfinn took it into his head to journey to Norway, plead repentance and secure a lasting peace. The hard-pressed Magnus was minded to agree, but then the solitary bodyguard whom Thorfinn had spared claimed the right of blood-feud since Thorfinn had massacred his brother. Thorfinn was then forced to run for his life before judgement could be passed on him.8

Yet far more serious than Thorfinn’s high-handed actions in the Orkneys was the disaffection of Svein Estrithson, son of Earl Ulf, whose mother was Astrid, Cnut’s sister, and who claimed to have been named as heir by Edward the Confessor in England and to be the nearest blood descendant of Cnut’s line. With consummate cunning, Svein did not at first reveal the scope of his ambitions, but pretended to be a man resigned to the buffets of Fate. Making the acquaintance of Magnus at the Gotha river in 1038, he became the king’s chief adviser and confidant. Magnus was mightily taken with him, created him an earl and, when Denmark acclaimed him as its king in 1042, appointed him his viceroy in that country, following the example of Cnut, who had made Svein’s father his plenipotentiary in Denmark while he ruled in England. The shrewd Einar Tambarskjelver, who was genuinely devoted to Magnus, warned the young king that this was a foolish act, as it placed temptation within reach of a supremely ambitious man. ‘Too great an earl, too great an earl!’ were Einar’s resigned but prophetic words. Magnus rewarded Einar’s fidelity by rounding on him, pointing out that he was forever running down the men he made earls: either they were useless or they were too strong.9

Despite the claims of his apologists, it is abundantly clear that Svein swore an oath of loyalty to Magnus and therefore that his subsequent actions were arrant treachery. At first Svein bided his time in Denmark, making himself a very popular ruler and finding reasons to keep out of the ferocious fighting Magnus found himself involved in during the year 1043. The Slavic Rus or Wends who had pushed west as far as the Elbe had an independent kingdom based on the fortified town of Jomsborg, which paid nominal allegiance to Magnus, but in 1043 they poured over the border in large-scale raids. Faced with a revolt against his authority by the Vendland people of Jomsborg, Magnus showed his harsh side: he sacked the fortress, razed the town to the ground and laid waste the countryside round about; Svein managed to be absent in Sweden during this campaign. Having forced the submission of the Wends, Magnus went north to Jutland to deal with a fleet of independent Vikings, whom he defeated in a sea battle off Rugen.10

Hearing that most of Magnus’s land army had been demobilized, Svein Estrithson decided to strike. He invaded Denmark with an army lent him by the friendly Swedish king, declared himself the rightful successor of Cnut, and was well received by the peoples of Lund, Zealand and Funen. The Wends, seeing the authority of Magnus apparently in ruins, repudiated their treaty with him and went on the rampage. Calling up his land army again, albeit with reduced numbers, Magnus waited until the Wends reached Ribe. Marching to Hedeby, some twenty miles north-west of Kiel, together with his kinsman Otto, the Duke of Brunswick, he intercepted the Wends on 28 September at Haithabu on Lyrsog heath. After a long, hard-fought battle, he routed the Wends with great slaughter.11

Then he turned to deal with the treacherous Svein. On 18 December 1043 he defeated him in a great sea battle at Aarhus in Jutland, taking seven of Svein’s ships as prizes. He dogged Svein relentlessly through Denmark, pursuing him through Funen, Zealand, Scania and Lund, until Svein finally sought refuge in Sweden. Denmark then submitted to Magnus, but he did not feel confident enough to return to Norway until the spring of 1044. As soon as he had retired, Svein again invaded from Sweden and was again rapturously received by the Danes. Once more Magnus headed south and this time he inflicted a severe defeat on Svein at Helganes, east of Aarhus in northern Jutland. Svein repeated the flight of the winter before, into Sweden, and it was there, in 1045, that he met Harald Sigurdsson on his return from Kiev. Magnus meanwhile, by visiting severe punishments on the disloyal Danes and trying to extirpate whole communities that had been particularly supportive of Svein, merely alienated Denmark even further.12

In 1045 Magnus was riding high. He seemed invincible in battle, had demonstrated his military superiority over Svein Estrithson and, angered by a reply from Edward the Confessor claiming that the English throne was rightly his, was contemplating an invasion of England. Edward was seriously alarmed and determined to placate Magnus by strict neutrality in the conflict between him and Svein; when Estrithson asked for help in his war against Norway, Edward turned him down on the grounds that Magnus’s fleet was too large. At all points Magnus seemed poised for outright victory in Scandinavia. Suddenly Svein reappeared, having secured the alliance of Harald Hardrada.13

Harald’s strategy was first to try to negotiate with Magnus, with the implied threat of a campaign in alliance with Svein if he did not get what he wanted. He proceeded to Denmark from Sweden in a beautiful Viking ship with a gilt dragon’s head and dragon’s tail and a sumptuous sail woven with the fabrics of Byzantium. He found Magnus’s fleet anchored at Oresund on the coast of Skane, and the appearance of this imposing ship caused a sensation among the king’s oarsmen. Magnus sent a herald to ask the stranger’s business and Harald adopted his favourite trick of standing forth himself as his own envoy and answering in the third person as if on behalf of a superior. When the ‘envoy’ asked how Harald Sigurdsson, the king’s uncle, would be received by Magnus, the reply was: ‘With joy and open arms.’ We can only speculate about the circumstances of the first meeting between these two great warriors. Magnus, about twenty-five at the time and thus five years Harald’s junior, was said to be a man of medium height, long-faced, light-haired, clear-complexioned; admired by enemies as well as friends, he was brisk, decisive, eloquent, generous and, if the sagas may be believed, quick to anger.

Serious negotiations then began. Harald asked if Magnus, who was childless, would recognize him as his heir apparent and give him half the kingdom as an earnest of this. Magnus referred the request to his council, at which Einar Tambarskjelver first appeared as Harald’s unregenerate enemy: Einar suggested that as a quid pro quo Harald should share half his treasure with Magnus – for by this time news of the fabulous hoard brought back from Byzantium had spread. The greedy, gold-loving Harald refused the suggestion indignantly, to the angry stupefaction of Einar, who considered it a generous offer and reproached Harald for his selfishness: he added, tauntingly, that Magnus had defeated all Norway’s enemies while Harald was making money in Constantinople and that, as long as he had any voice in the kingdom, Norway would never be divided on any other basis.14

Harald took this as a declaration of war and returned to Sweden to seal a formal alliance with Svein Estrithson. Their joint expedition set out and was soon harrying Funen and Zealand with fire and sword, Harald playing the role of the old Viking raider with gusto, Svein less enthusiastically, as he could only alienate the people by such depredations. It is abundantly clear that in this era Scandinavians took slaves from their own people, for the Icelandic bard Valgard wrote about Harald and Svein’s raid on Zealand with a motley force of Swedes, Danes and Norwegians: ‘The Danes, those who still lived, fled away but fair women were taken. Locked fetters held the women’s bodies. Many women passed before you [Harald] to the ships; fetters bit greedily the bright-fleshed ones.’15

Magnus ordered a general levy of his kingdom to meet the renewed threat in the south, but baulked at fighting Harald and Svein together, so used diplomacy to try to detach Harald from his alliance of convenience. Secret messages were sent from Magnus to Harald, stressing the ties of kinship, pointing out the near-sacrilegious folly whereby the son of the saintly Olaf waged war on Olaf’s half-brother, and renewing the offer to divide the kingdom on the exchange of half Harald’s treasure. Svein soon got wind of these overtures, and one night there was a furious row when he made slighting remarks about the scant success achieved by Harald’s beloved war-banner ‘Land Ravager’. Harald replied coldly that there was no guarantee he would always be carrying Land Ravager into battle against Magnus in the future. Svein now stated openly the suspicion he had always harboured in his own mind – that Harald had only fought Magnus so far to wrest concessions from him. Harald replied that despite the sacred ties of kinship binding him to Magnus, he had always remained true to his word given to Svein – which was more than Svein could say about the word he had given to Magnus.

The two men parted angrily, and Harald told his lieutenants that he would not sleep that night in his ship, as he suspected treachery. To test Svein’s intentions he left a block of wood wrapped up in his bunk and, sure enough, that very night an assassin climbed on board ship and severed the block of wood with an axe. There could be no denying a murder attempt on such visible evidence. Harald told his men to row all night and get clear of Svein’s territory. His problem now was that he was out on a limb, having broken with Svein without having an accord with Magnus. Hearing that Magnus’s fleet was on its way south to engage Svein’s, Harald slipped into Norway by the back door, hoping to have himself proclaimed king in Magnus’s absence. In his homeland of Oplandende he received a lukewarm reception – proving the truth of the old saw that a prophet is not without honour save in his own country – but he fared better in the district of Gudbandsal, where he was helped by his powerful kinsman Thor of Seig. Harald convened athingwhere Thor proclaimed him king, and recruits began to trickle in. All seemed set for civil war, when Magnus suddenly asked for a fresh conference with his uncle.16

There are conflicting accounts of the basis on which peace was finally made between Harald and Magnus. Some say that Magnus stepped up to Harald at the council with two reeds in his hand, held one of them out to him and said: ‘With this reed I give you half of Norway.’ The trouble with this story is that Magnus did not give Harald half of Norway. The aristocratic advisers on either side were adamant that Norway should not be divided, as in Harald’s initial proposal, but that Magnus and Harald should be joint kings, with joint sovereignty over an undivided realm, and that, if Magnus remained childless, Harald would succeed him. In some sources it is stated that Harald finally agreed to give Magnus half his treasure, but this is far less certain. For one thing, Einar Tambarskjelver always refused to recognize Harald as joint king; had Harald shared his treasure with Magnus, as Einar himself had originally suggested, he would have had no legitimate cause or basis for continued opposition to Harald. The monk-annalist Theodric, too, states that the agreement was that the two men should be joint sovereigns in Norway but that, because Harald failed to share his treasure, Magnus would be the sole king in Denmark.17

Snorre Sturlusson, too, seems undecided in his verdict on the divided treasure. His story is that Harald laid out a vast quantity of gold and silver and challenged Magnus to match it. Magnus said his treasury was bare because of the constant wars since 1042 and all he had to offer was a ring. He took it off and showed it to Harald, who examined it quizzically, then remarked it was little enough for a man who claimed two kingdoms, especially as his very ownership of the ring was doubtful. Magnus replied loftily that if he was not the owner of the ring, he could scarcely claim to be owner of anything, since his father Olaf had given it to him. Harald replied with a cynical laugh that he did not doubt it; the ring originally belonged to his father, Sigurd Syr, but Olaf had expropriated it: ‘In truth it was not a good time for small kings in Norway when thy father was in power.’ Significantly, though, there is no definite statement that Harald’s treasure was divided.18

About the reasons for the establishment of the joint sovereignty, however, there is near unanimity. All the powerful magnates and chieftains of Norway were determined not to become embroiled in a fratricidal civil war between too close kin and were as adamant on this point as on their insistence that there should be joint sovereignty rather than division of the realm. From Magnus’s point of view three main considerations held. If he denied Harald his claim to kingship, he would have to live in permanent fear of a coupfrom a man who had a large following. How, then, could he ever leave Norway to deal effectively with Svein Estrithson? He could not fight Harald and Svein together and would therefore have to come to an agreement with one of them. Since Svein was insistent on retaining Denmark as the price of any compact, the pluses and minuses clearly indicated an alliance with Harald. Moreover, Svein was as impecunious as he (Magnus) was, and if he was ever to achieve his ambition of conquering England and restoring Cnut’s empire, he needed the direct or indirect use of Harald’s treasure, to say nothing of the military know-how he had acquired in Byzantium.19

Needless to say, the joint kingship agreed in 1046 engendered many problems unforeseen or unresolved in the original compact. Each king had his separate court, courtiers and entourage, but rivalry and jealousy between them bred constant problems. Harald, a natural autocrat, was harsh and uncompromising and soon acquired the title that would stay with him for ever – Hardrada, the hard ruler; he was also known as ‘the land ravager’ and, more simply, ‘Harald the bad’. Magnus, by contrast, was widely perceived to be generous and compassionate and Harald was frequently contrasted with him to the uncle’s disadvantage.20 There was always particular tension whenever the two kings met, especially as the implacable Einar Tambarskjelver, who enjoyed Magnus’s protection, openly referred to Harald as a usurper and lost no opportunity to foment discord between him and Magnus.

Two very different stories illustrate the tensions between the joint sovereigns. On one occasion when they were feasting in the same hall, the renowned bard Arnorr Hordarson arose to recite two lays, one for each of the kings. Wrongly choosing to recite for Magnus first, on the ground that the young are more hot-tempered and impatient than their elders, Hordarson recounted a magnificent tale of adventure involving the Orkney earls with a setting ranging across the ocean to Iceland. Harald interrupted to ask Magnus sardonically how he could bear to sit there and listen to the adventures of other men, but Magnus replied that he would be praised in due course, which he was. Hordarsson then recited a song called the ‘Black Goose’ lay for Harald, which was a much more routine composition. Harald was then asked, as a man reputed to be a shrewd judge of poetry, which of the two lays was better. Ruefully he declared that the Black Goose lay would soon fade into oblivion but that the song composed for Magnus would live for ever.21

In the spring of 1047 there was an even more serious clash. The two kings ordered a universal call-up in Norway, hoping to deal once and for all with Svein Estrithson, and agreed a general mustering point. Harald was first at the rendezvous and moored his ships in the part of the harbour reserved for the king. When Magnus arrived and found ‘his’ berth taken, he flew into a rage and ordered his ships to form battle stations. Harald was obliged to order his ships out of the royal anchorage to avoid a bloody battle there and then. A while later, when Magnus’s vessels had supplanted his, he boarded Magnus’s ship and remarked wryly that he thought he was among friends at the rendezvous but the events of the past few hours had disabused him. Glancing condescendingly at Magnus, he said witheringly: ‘It is a truth that childhood is hasty, and I will only consider it as a childish freak.’ Magnus answered coldly that childhood had nothing to do with it; it was a maxim in his family to hold one’s own; he pointed out that, while determined to keep to his agreement with Harald, he relinquished none of his royal prerogatives. Harald riposted that the prerogative of the wise was to give way before the foolish, turned on his heel and returned to his ship.22

As he brooded on this and other incidents, Harald became more than ever convinced that Magnus was trailing his coat. After all, the 1046 agreement merely stipulated that if the two kings arrived together at an anchorage Magnus was to have preference; nothing was said about the situation where Harald arrived first. If it now turned out that he had to give up his place to Magnus whenever the younger man arrived, what meaning could attach to the so-called sharing of the kingdom? Harald concluded that Magnus was itching to rescind the agreement and that conflict between them was inevitable once they had disposed of Svein Estrithson. But how to bell the cat? No matter how many victories they won against Svein, his hold on the affections of the Danish people seemed unaffected. Clearly 1047 would be a make-or-break year.

In the summer of that year Harald and Magnus campaigned vigorously in Denmark, laying waste Zealand and Jutland and forcing Svein eastwards to Skane; by the end of the year Svein was at his last gasp. Even as he lost the actual battles, Svein was trying to win the propaganda war by asserting that he had been named as successor in England and Denmark by both Harthacnut and Edward the Confessor. His argument was twofold: that Edward had explicitly named him while he was in England; and that the alleged agreement between Magnus and Harthacnut at the Gotha river had never taken place. The weakness of Svein’s argument was that, if he had been nominated as Edward’s heir, why had he left England in the first place; and why had he fitted out a fleet to conquer Denmark, when, according to the alleged bequests from Edward and Harthacnut, he had already been named heir in Denmark as well? The truth is that, if Edward, notoriously slapdash with his pledges of the succession, had promised anyone it would have been Magnus, for the very good and prudent reason that it would have headed off his oft-threatened invasion.23

But Svein’s dauntlessness and his invincible belief in his own star stood him in good stead. On the point of abandoning the hopeless struggle in Denmark and retiring permanently to Sweden, he was unexpectedly heartened by an apparent miracle, for Magnus suddenly died, seemingly in the very moment of total triumph. The details of his death are mysterious: most sources relate that he fell sick and died of an unknown disease while in pursuit of Svein, but cannot agree whether the sickness struck him in Zealand or Jutland. Inevitably in this era, whenever sudden death struck, foul play was suspected, and there were those who said that Harald Hardrada had simply poisoned a turbulent rival. Snorre Sturlusson stated baldly that Magnus drowned, without giving any details. Saxo Grammaticus claimed that he died near the town of Alsted when his horse was startled by a hare and bolted into a tree with spiky branches, which lifted Magnus out of the saddle and threw him to the ground, where he expired from multiple fractures. Some scholars think Saxo’s account is allegorical, as it sounds too much like the Old Testament story of Absalom, since the hare is a symbol of doom, and since, anyway, no other source tells this story or places him in Alsted. Whatever the case, Magnus’s death was interpreted by Svein and the Danes as a sign from God – an inference strengthened when Thor, Magnus’s brother, told Svein that it was Magnus’s dying wish that Svein (whose courage he secretly admired) should succeed him in Denmark. The deathbed bequest seems feasible, evincing an entirely plausible hatred of Harald Hardrada.24

On Magnus’s death Harald immediately held an assembly of all the warriors in his fleet and announced that he would not respect Magnus’s deathbed request, as he intended to pursue his claim to the throne of Denmark. A large faction, led by Einar Tambarskjelver, refused to continue the campaign in Denmark, on the ground that the immediate priority was to bury Magnus: Einar indeed declared pointedly that he would rather follow Magnus dead than any king living. Taking a large part of the fleet with him, Tambarskjelver sailed for Nidaros (Trondheim), where Magnus was laid in the tomb in St Clement’s church alongside his father, St Olaf. Harald was forced to abandon the pursuit of Svein Estrithson. He proceeded to Viken in southern Norway and summoned a thing which proclaimed him king of all Norway; he was then recognized as king in all the districts of the land. At the age of thirty-two, he appeared to have achieved his every ambition.25

Harald’s first acts as king were shrewd. As half-brother and most important surviving kinsman, he claimed to be the true inheritor of the mantle of St Olaf and wrapped himself in the mystique of Olaf’s rapidly developing cult. To show his superiority to Magnus as statesman he settled the long-running crisis in the Orkneys, where Thorfinn had so signally set Magnus’s authority at nought. Harald agreed to wipe the slate clean with Thorfinn and to forget his massacre of Magnus’s bodyguard, provided Thorfinn accepted Norwegian suzerainty over the Orkneys and made a pilgrimage of repentance. Thorfinn accepted these terms, made a pilgrimage to Rome, visiting the emperor in Germany en route, and was ever afterwards a loyal supporter of Harald.26

In another clever move, in 1048 Harald made a dynastic alliance with the powerful Arnmodling family by marrying Thora, daughter of Thorberg Arnesson of Giske. This has puzzled some historians, since his wife Elizabeth was still alive, but the Scandinavians still practised polygamy, and indeed this may have been the reason for Yaroslav’s reluctance to let his daughter depart for her husband’s northern kingdom. On Harald’s part, an additional motive for the bigamous match may have been a desire to humiliate Elizabeth, for he was a man who bore grudges and never forgot slights, and may not have truly forgiven Elizabeth’s initial rejection of him. Of the bigamy itself there can be no question, since both Elizabeth and Thora were alive in 1066. Elizabeth bore him two daughters, Maria and Ingigerd, while Thora produced two sons, Magnus and Olaf. Some historians have rather lamely objected that a Christian king could not live in open bigamy without protests from the pope, but, as Harald demonstrated in 1061, he cared nothing for the pope’s opinion.27

Determined to continue the war against Svein Estrithson, Harald built a new war fleet on the Nith river in 1048 and made a great show of steering his flagship galley westward out of the river. But Svein did not engage him in pitched battle, preferring to employ Fabian tactics, avoiding contact and engaging in hit-and-run guerrilla warfare. Fabian tactics were appropriate in more ways than one, for the long fifteen-year war that now commenced and that saw an almost annual invasion of Denmark reminds one of Hannibal’s equally long and equally futile campaigns in Italy from 218 to 203 BC. There is something of a mystery about this long war, for Harald’s tactics were equally short-term, ad hoc and inconsistent with his stated desire to conquer Denmark. Some have speculated that overpopulation was still a problem in Scandinavia and war its natural outlet, but it is more likely that Harald kept Norway on a permanent war footing as a way to solve his internal problems with the Norwegian aristocracy.28

In an attempt to cut the Gordian knot both combatants sent ambassadors to England in 1048, Harald to negotiate an alliance, Svein to ask once more for fifty ships. Svein’s supporters advanced the absurd argument that Harald had sworn an oath of loyalty to Svein which he had violated by devastating Denmark and sacking churches – this last, presumably, to appeal to the pious Edward. Naturally, the English courtiers realized that Svein was trying to confuse the short-term agreement Harald made with him in 1045, when they were both fighting Magnus, with the very different situation after Magnus’s death, and treated the argument with the contempt it deserved. Earl Godwin dearly wanted to intervene in the Scandinavian war on the side of his kinsman Svein, but Edward always opposed this. The Confessor saw clearly enough that, if there was ever a clear victor in the northern war, that king, whether Harald or Svein, would immediately look to England for his next conquest.29

In 1049 Harald again invaded Denmark and devastated the country; this time Svein’s tactic was to counter-invade Norway. The year’s hostilities petered out in stalemate, with Svein proposing a decisive test of strength next year at the Gotha river. In the spring of 1050 Harald arrived at the Gotha river with a large host but found no Svein there. Thinking that Svein would not dare to meet him in pitched battle, the overconfident Harald dismissed most of his bondermen, retaining his hirdmen and lendermen and thebondermenfrom the frontier marches. He then made a systematic sweep through Jutland, ravaging as he went and culminating in a devastating sack of Hedeby, a great centre of trade and Viking art, which never recovered from the destructive treatment meted out by Harald.30

As Harald sailed north into the Jutland sea with sixty ships laden with booty, he was suddenly intercepted at Thjoda by Svein with a fleet or more than a hundred vessels. Never one to be daunted by inferiority in numbers, Harald engaged the enemy inconclusively, then stood away north. Finding the wind against them, the Norwegians were compelled to shelter in the lee of Lesso, where they were swathed in a thick fog. Next morning they awoke to find the sea seemingly on fire, then realized it was the torches and flambeaux of the Danes piercing the mist. They weighed anchor and tried to escape north through the drifting fog, but, once clear visibility was restored, the Danish ships, lighter and not laden down with loot, began to gain on them. Harald at first tried to slow down the pursuers by throwing overboard all the booty; the ruse worked, as the Danes scattered to recover it. Then an angry Svein came on the scene, rebuked his men for their folly and sent his ships in pursuit again. Finding that jettisoning his food and liquor supplies did nothing to slow the pursuers down, Harald had all his Danish prisoners thrown into the sea. Faced with the clamour of his men, who begged him to rescue their friends and kinsmen, Svein was finally forced to break off the chase. For all that, he took seven straggling Norwegian vessels captive off Lesso and taught Harald that he was not to be underestimated.31

Quite apart from the interminable war with Svein Estrithson, Harald’s reign was turbulent and eventful; he was ‘the thunderbolt of the North, a pestilence to all the Danish islands’, in the words of Adam of Bremen. His Christianity was skin-deep, for he thought nothing of sacking churches, as he notably did in Aarhus and Schleswig, and was unmoved by cries of ‘Sacrilege!’ when he diverted the funds gathered nationwide and placed as an offering at St Olaf’s tomb in Nidaros for his own use as a war chest. His enemies alleged that he was a second Julian the Apostate, who despised Christianity as a religion of cowards, practised the runic arts secretly and would like to have returned Norway to the heroic pagan age of the Aesir and the Volsungs. This is undoubtedly an exaggeration, but it is clear he cared nothing for papal authority. As a result of the Church reforms of the early 1050s, Norway was placed under the canonical authority of Adalbert, Archbishop of Bremen. Harald refused to accept this, appointed his own bishops, and expelled both the bishop appointed from Bremen and the papal legates. When Pope Alexander II wrote to him in 1061, bidding him yield to the authority of the Vatican-appointed bishops, Harald replied blithely that he knew no authority in Norway save himself.32

What kept Harald firmly on the throne, proof against all challenges, was the economic prosperity Norway enjoyed under him. This was partly due to the booty brought back from the wars in Denmark, partly the result of the impetus given the domestic economy by the huge demand for war matériel of all kinds, but was above all the consequence of the demand-driven inflation engendered by the massive treasure he brought back from Byzantium. Harald regularized the coinage, and the volume of money in circulation in Scandinavia in these years tells its own story. As the noted Byzantine expert Dimitri Obolensky has written: ‘The appearance of a series of strikingly accurate imitations of contemporary Byzantine coin types on Danish coins of the mid-eleventh century was almost certainly due to the arrival in Scandinavia of the vast treasure which Harald Hardrada is known to have accumulated while in imperial service.’33

Harald’s life and career is in many ways the apotheosis of the Norsemen’s role as transmission belt and professional middlemen between the societies of northern Europe and the Mediterranean. The network which linked Scandinavia to Asia via Russia and the Mediterranean was the most enduring Viking legacy and as the living embodiment of this process Harald Hardrada was truly the ultimate Viking. The one fixed point in a chaotic foreign policy was unswerving friendship for Byzantium, even though he had left Constantinople under a cloud. With the much more splendid title of king of Norway to his name, he still took pride in the old rank of Spatharocandidatus he had received in imperial service, and noted with sadness that the Varangian guard was becoming less and less Norse in composition, though this was a process that would intensify only after 1066.34

Harald also took a great interest in Byzantine affairs in general and had his spies send him regular reports on the personalities he had known there. Constantine IX had scarcely improved in wisdom since 1043. He virtually committed military suicide by his plan to ‘Byzantify’ the army. The backbone of Constantinople’s fighting machine was the corps of Georgians, 50,000 strong, second in calibre only to the Varangians themselves. The absurd Constantine suggested they should buy their way out of military service on payment of a nominal fee, and nearly all the Georgians took him up on his offer, gravely weakening the empire. By 1050 the powerful Seljuks were masters of Baghdad and preparing to move against Constantinople, while in Sicily and southern Italy the family of the Norman Tancred de Hauteville were on the point of dislodging the Byzantines completely. Having gelded the army, Constantine nearly wrecked the economy by debasing the gold coinage. By the time he died in 1055, he had presided over the great religious schism the year before, when Rome and Constantinople squabbled over metaphysics instead of making common cause against the Normans.35

Harald’s other great foreign policy triumph was the way he integrated Norway’s overseas empire. He succeeded in bringing the Orkneys back under the Norwegian aegis, where Magnus had failed, and enjoyed particularly close ties with Iceland, where indeed he was more popular than in his native country. When there was a famine there in 1056, he sent four ships laden with wheat at a giveaway price, sent timber to build a church to St Olaf at Thingwalla and allowed free migration between Norway and Iceland. Fascinated by geography, he sent out expeditions to chart the Baltic minutely and to explore the unknown stretches of the North Sea and the Atlantic. Regular trade routes were established between Norway and Iceland. He knew the secret of avoiding scurvy on his ships by taking the arctic cloudberry (Rubus chamoemorus) from the Scandinavian heathlands on his voyages and, in the late 1050s, during a lull in the war with Svein, even went on an expedition himself into the ‘ultima thule’ region of the Atlantic.36

Harald was also a great patron of the arts, an unrivalled judge of poetry and no mean songwriter himself. This sensitive side may at first appear surprising in such a cruel and ruthless warrior, but it is one of many contradictions in the personality of this complex man. Afraid of no one on earth, he was deeply superstitious and was said to have been terrified by the corpse of Ivar the Boneless, the great Viking hero of the ninth century. Of all the kings of Norway he was undoubtedly the finest poet and the man with the profoundest aesthetic sense. He particularly admired the work of Arnorr Hordarson and gave him a spear inlaid with gold for the excellence of his poetry. In return Arnorr promised that if he lived longer than Harald, he would compose a timeless memorial lay about him – which he subsequently did. The one aspect of Arnorr Harald did not care for was his excessive piety: in his lays Arnorr prayed for the soul of the king in terms which suggested he was not convinced Harald would attain heavenly bliss. More to Harald’s taste were Bjodolfr and Sneggu-Halli, who composed in the old pagan, heroic style. But a very high level of sophistication was required of Harald’s courtiers, who were expected to be able to catch all the abstruse references of the ‘kennings’ – those euphuisms whereby ‘a tribute of Lapps’ means ‘arrows’.37

Harald’s comrade-in-arms at Byzantium, Haldor Snorresson, was also a talented poet and liked to go to Iceland each summer for the Allthing, where sagas were recited. Harald was fond of Haldor, and particularly prized his unflappability – for Haldor acted exactly the same in good times and bad, always eating and drinking copiously, never losing sleep, always stoical and enduring. A close-mouthed laconic man, Haldor had one great fault: he was blunt, opinionated, and called a spade a spade – on one notorious occasion during the 1038–40 campaign in Sicily he had accused Harald of cowardice. In middle age, Harald developed a taste for sycophancy and grew tired of the plain-spoken Haldor. On the pretext that Haldor had grown immensely stout and was no longer fit for battle, Harald ‘suggested’ that his old comrade retire permanently to Iceland, which he did. Haldor’s banishment opened the way for the elevation of the other old Byzantine comrade, Ulf Ospaksson, who was endowed lavishly with lands and married to Jorun, the sister of Harald’s wife Thora.38

Yet by far the most significant feature of Harald’s twenty-year reign was his strengthening of the institution of the monarchy. Harald continued the policy of centralization begun by Harald Fairhair, whose actions had led to so much emigration in the tenth century: curbing the power of the landed aristocracy and binding the powerful oligarchs to the monarchy by intermarriage.39 In this regard Harald was immeasurably helped by the cult of St Olaf, for the feedback image from this now most revered of Norwegian icons meant that a strong king was ‘natural’ and the resistance of the aristocrats was ‘unnatural’. Magnus had cleverly steered between being an autocrat and being a figurehead: the oligarchs had given him their qualified support, he was not their puppet, but neither was he their taskmaster. Magnus always treated his nobles with consideration and without arrogance. Such, however, was not Harald’s way – he regarded diplomacy and compromise as weakness – and the beginning of his reign saw a spate of expulsions and even murders as he sought to make his arbitrary power unchallengeable.

It was obvious that Harald’s first target would be Einar Tambarskjelver, the man who had always opposed him, and the most powerful lenderman in the Drontheim province. Kinship ties between him and Harald were not strong enough, since the only link was through Harald’s great-niece Sigrid, who was married to Einar’s son Eindride, a man almost as popular in his province as Tambarskjelver himself; Einar’s chief kinship ties were to Hakon Ivarsson, whose daughter Bergljot he had married. Since Harald’s accession in 1047, Einar had continued to speak out against him in council, frequently angering the king by reminding him that, in any conflict between monarchy and law, the law must prevail. Einar knew he was swimming in very dangerous waters and for this reason always kept a bodyguard of picked retainers around him whenever he had dealings with the king. On one occasion he enraged Harald by arriving at a council with nine warships and five hundred warriors.40

It was difficult for Harald to find a pretext to eliminate Einar, even though he went to the lengths of sending his secret agents to try to entrap him, pretending to be spies from Svein Estrithson and promising him the crown if he would help to overthrow Hardrada. Einar told them that he was no friend to Harald but would always help him to defend the kingdom against Svein Estrithson. Baulked of his prey, Harald invited Einar to a banquet of reconciliation at Nidaros, and then went out of his way to alienate him, out of a perverse desire to destroy him at all costs. While welcoming him with false bonhomie, Harald confided his true thoughts to his circle of intimates, where one of the court poets recorded them in words which give us the authentic flavour of the man: ‘Here is the bold Einar, the earth-shaker, with his company. He knows how to plough the sea. In his pride he looks forward to filling the throne. I have often seen a lesser number of retainers at an earl’s heels. He will scheme us out of the land, unless he kiss the thin lips of the axe.’41

Finally the wily noble made a false step. When a man arrested for theft turned out to be one of Einar’s favourite retainers, Tambarskjelver broke the law by going to the trial at the thing and releasing him. To answer the charge of contumacy Harald summoned him to his new palace by the river Nid. Since the venue was in lands controlled by Einar and his sympathizers, he went to the meeting with a smaller bodyguard than usual, taking Eindride with him. Seeing no sign of Harald’s warriors in the palace courtyard, Einar assumed he had been summoned for a one-to-one conclave and left Eindride and his men outside. He was shown into a darkened room where a party of armed men lay hidden; they despatched him immediately. When Eindride heard his father’s cries of agony, he drew his sword and rushed inside but was himself slain. Harald called out in a voice of thunder that all Einar’s men must lay down their arms. Although they greatly outnumbered Harald and his men, without a leader they were indecisive and did not press their advantage. After a while, scenting victory, Harald and his men emerged cautiously, in Roman turtle formation, crept down unopposed to the ships they had anchored in the fiord, and made good their escape.42

Einar’s widow raised the country in protest against the murder, and Harald faced the prospect of years of blood-feud. To find a settlement he turned to another powerful lenderman, Finn Arnesson of Austratt, brother of the Kalv Arnesson forced into exile by Magnus’s hostility. Finn was a shrewd choice as peacemaker for he was at once the uncle of Thora, Harald’s second wife, close friend of Guttorm Gunhildson, one of Harald’s intimates and also an old privateering partner of Hakon Ivarsson, in whose hands now rested the decision for peace or civil war. But Harald’s initial interview with Finn at Austratt was tense: Finn bitterly criticized him for the murder and accused him of having failed to think through the consequences.43

Swallowing his pride, Harald accepted the rebuke and pleaded with Finn to go on a mission to Drontheim, to appease the bondermen whom Einar’s widow was trying to stir up and, crucially, to neutralize Hakon Ivarsson. Finn underscored the dangers of such a mission but in the end reluctantly agreed to go, provided he was made a plenipotentiary and provided his brother Kalv was restored to all the estates he held before his exile. Harald had no choice but to agree. Finn then went to Drontheim in company with his brother-in-law Earl Orm to meet Hakon Ivarsson. At first the negotiations got nowhere: Hakon declared that it was his moral duty to avenge Eindride at the very least. Patiently Finn continued to talk, pointing out the risks of revolt: why risk everything on a rebellion that might well end with forfeiture, exile or even death when Harald had already promised to make him the greatest noble in the land? At this, Hakon changed his mind and agreed to let matters rest, provided Harald gave him Ragnhild, Magnus’s daughter, in marriage. The terms were agreed.44

Hakon then travelled up to Trondheim to see Harald, who said that he had no objection to the marriage but, since this involved a king’s daughter, Hakon must first get Ragnhild’s consent. She, however, proved to be a haughty woman who said she could not marry anyone of lesser rank than an earl. Hakon returned to Harald and, claiming that Ragnhild’s refusal in effect made his agreement with Harald worthless, demanded to be made an earl. Harald replied that both Olaf and Magnus had established the precedent that there could be only one earl in Norway; to create a second now would in effect be an insult to Earl Orm. A furious Hakon, who had already stayed the hand of the Drontheim men, raged that he had been duped, and accused Harald of compromising his honour. After such fighting talk he had second thoughts and feared for his own head: mindful of Einar’s fate, he fled to Svein Estrithson. Svein gave him great estates and made him commander of the coastal defences against the Vendland people.45

Hakon was not the only great noble to seek sanctuary with Svein, for Finn Arnesson, too, soon learned it was dangerous to trust Harald Hardrada. At first all was euphoria, as his brother Kalv returned from the Orkneys and retrieved all his estates. But Harald secretly loathed Kalv for his role at Stiklestad just as much as Magnus had.46 The ruthless monarch soon found a way to destroy him. In 1051, during the annual invasion of Denmark, Harald sent Kalv ahead with an élite corps as the vanguard, with orders to secure a beachhead; the understanding was that he and the main army would come ashore as soon as the beachhead was secure. But when the Danes counterattacked the landing army, Harald found it ‘impossible’ to come to their immediate aid; Kalv and his comrades were wiped out. A furious Finn rightly accused Harald of having deliberately sacrificed his brother; he too fled to Svein Estrithson and was rewarded with the earldom of Halland. The supremely ruthless Harald meanwhile boasted of his treachery in lines recorded by a court skald:

Now I have caused the deaths of thirteen of my enemies; I kill without compunction and remember all my killings. Treason must be scotched by fair means or foul before it overwhelms me. Oak trees grow from acorns.47

By the early 1050s Harald had killed off or driven into exile all the powerful nobles who opposed him: Einar Tambarskjelver and his son Eindride; Hakon Ivarsson; Finn and Kalv Arnesson; even Haldor Snorresson, his old comrade in Byzantium. In the Orkneys Thorfinn had accepted his overlordship, and their alliance held fast, even if this was for prudential motives. Thorfinn’s great friend and ally was Macbeth – they had even gone to Rome together on pilgrimage in 1050 – and when Edward the Confessor sent Siward to overthrow him in 1054 and put Malcolm on the throne, Thorfinn felt the cold winds blowing.48

In Harald Hardrada’s new regime – as close to absolute monarchy as medieval kingship could get – the key figures were Ulf Ospaksson, whom Harald appointed as his marshal, Stump, a blind saga-teller, who was a Rasputin-like figure at the court, and Guthorm Gunhildson, Harald’s nephew. Guthorm was both a brave warrior and a shrewd and trusted counsellor, who had the peculiarity of looking fifty when he was in his twenties. Until 1052 he had had a roistering career as a freebooter and pirate in Irish waters before being taken up as a favourite of King Margad Rognvaldsson (known in Irish as Eachmarcach MacRagnall), who ruled Dublin from 1046 to 1052. In 1052 the two friends went on a slave-raiding expedition to Wales, but in Anglesey Sound fell out over the division of the spoils. Margad peremptorily informed Guthorm that he would not after all be splitting the booty equally and that, if he was not prepared to accept a lesser share, he would have to fight to make good his claim. Even though heavily outnumbered, with five smaller ships ranged against Margad’s six large galleys, Guthorm gave battle, defeated and killed Margad and made sure that his exploit would be remembered by getting his skalds to note the exact day: 28 July 1052.49

It may have been Guthorm who first kindled Harald’s interest in the British Isles, of which there are signs in the 1050s, but everything about Hardrada’s pre-1066 attitude to England is mired in controversy. Some claim that it was always Harald’s dream to restore Cnut’s empire, embracing Scandinavia and England. Others assert that the real dynamic behind the accord of 1052 whereby Edward the Confessor bowed his head to the Godwin family was fear that civil war in England would so weaken the realm that Harald would be handed an easy conquest. The only certainty is that in 1058 Harald sent his son Magnus on a large-scale raiding expedition to the British Isles. Again historians are divided on the meaning of this probe. Was it simply a large-scale slave-raiding expedition, was it part of an inchoate alliance with Gruffydd ap Llywelyn or Aelfgar, or was it simple opportunism by a man restless in a lull in the war with Denmark? He may also have sent the fleet as a warning to Edward that he still maintained a claim to the English throne as Magnus’s successor and victor over Svein Estrithson or as a warning not to intervene on Svein’s side now that Harald was so close to total victory.50

Meanwhile the long war with Denmark dragged on. We hear of significant activity in 1054, for Harald campaigned that year in the Elbe and held a moot at Thumla in Gauta-Elf, where he denounced the Danish people in terms that signal his frustration; no matter how many times Svein was defeated, he still kept the loyalty of his subjects: ‘The Danes have bartered their honour and their good lord for Svein; this villainy will long be held in mind.’ This may have been the campaign when Harald won a lasting reputation for cunning and resourcefulness. Svein apparently tried to trap him in Lymfjord around Livo Bredning, but Harald escaped by portaging his ships overland and then sailing north along the Jutland coast. But although we hear of virtually annual forays into Denmark, Harald cannot have had things all his own way. Some time in the 1050s Harald founded the city of Oslo, so as to be able to defend the country more effectively than from Nidaros. Well supplied by the fertile, food-growing lands around, Oslo may also have featured in Harald’s mind as a symbol of his own fame, a base in the south to set against the northerly centre of Nidaros, which was too closely associated with St Olaf for his liking.51

In the early 1060s Harald staked all on one last great effort to win the war with Svein. He made the most elaborate preparations, including the construction in Nidaros of a large buss – a combined merchantman-warship with thirty-five rowers’ benches – and his own great flagship with a dragon’s figurehead known as the ‘dragonship’ with seventy oarsmen. He called out a general levy and launched his new fleet on the river Nid. The year 1061 saw him once again laying waste Jutland, and ended with Harald’s challenge to Svein to meet him next year at the Gotha river – scene of so many great encounters in Norwegian history – in a pitched battle to decide the outcome of the war once and for all. There was no confidence that Svein would accept the challenge, for he had ducked such invitations before; the rumour was that, ever since their mauling during the 1048 campaign, Svein’s troops preferred to face death by drowning rather than the cold steel of Harald’s warriors.52

To make sense of the events of 1062, we have to follow the career of the exiled Hakon Ivarsson in Denmark. For a long time Svein had been troubled by the activities of his nephew Asmund, his brother Bjorn’s son, a young hothead who ran his own private army of desperadoes and raided royal lands to finance it. Svein tried binding the young man to him by loading him with favours, but Asmund quickly became bored with life at court and raised another warband. When Svein’s patience snapped and he sent his bodyguard to arrest him, Asmund managed to escape from his chains and raise the countryside once more. The devious Svein decided to shift the blame on to Hakon Ivarsson. When the landlords whose estates Asmund had devastated complained to Svein, he referred them to Hakon, saying it was clearly his problem as lord of the marches; in an unguarded moment he added the sarcasm that it was a pity Hakon was not doing the job he had been appointed to do and that he was always somewhere else when Asmund struck.

This was reported to Hakon, who marshalled all his resources to deal with Asmund. Catching up with him, he brought his motley warband to battle, defeated it, slew Asmund and cut off his head. Hakon then went to Svein’s palace, histrionically threw the severed head on a table in front of Svein and asked him ironically if he recognized it. Svein, pale with shock and shaking with rage, said nothing but soon after sent a message to Hakon, ordering him to leave his service immediately; he added disingenuously that he personally would not harm him, but he could not speak for Asmund’s powerful kinfolk. Hakon understood the implicit death-sentence and left Denmark forthwith; he put out peace feelers to Harald and learned that, with Earl Orm now dead, there would be no obstacle to his being appointed to the vacant earlship, which would enable him to marry Ragnhild.53

This was the situation when, in the summer of 1062, Harald sailed south towards the rendezvous at the Gotha river. At Viken the fleet ran into a heavy storm and had to lie to, but when the weather cleared and they reached the spot appointed for the decisive battle there was no sign of Svein. Deprived of his climactic encounter, Harald led the bondermen home and proceeded with 180 ships south to Halland, where he began laying waste the country. At Laholm Bay, near the modern town of Halmstad, he anchored at the mouth of the Nissa, one of the five rivers which rise in the plateaux of Vastergotland and Smaland and flow westward through Halland to the sea. There, on 9 August 1062, Svein Estrithson came upon him with a fleet estimated to be at least twice as large. Harald at last had his decisive battle, but hardly in the circumstances of his choosing.54

Ulf Ospaksson, the marshal, ranged the 180 Norwegian ships in a wedge-shaped formation behind Harald’s ‘dragonship’. Facing them was Svein and, next to him, Finn Arnesson; the Danes lashed all their ships together, possibly because of low morale among their men, even now, with a clear numerical advantage. It was about two hours before sunset; the two armies began showering each other with stones and arrows, and the battle continued thus as darkness fell. One of the skaldic poets described the scene with the usual plethora of kennings: ‘The Upland king [sc. Harald] was drawing his elm-bow all that night, making the arrow-heads hail on the white bucklers; the bloody points pierced the franklins’ mail, what time the Finn’s tribute [sc. arrows] stood thick on the serpent’s shields.’55

Some time after dark, Hakon Ivarsson arrived and intervened decisively on Harald’s side. He did not lash his ships together, but acted as a mobile squadron, picking off Danish ships that had worked loose from Svein’s seaborne phalanx. Hakon’s sea rovers caused immense damage, and led to significant early desertions by some of the Danes. This is reflected in the skaldic comments: ‘The king of the Danes would not have given way (we must speak the truth of him) if the men from the south of the sea had fought well for him.’ Early next morning Harald ordered a general advance. His warships scythed through the Danish ranks and he himself boarded Svein’s flagship during a general panic where the Danes were throwing themselves overboard or being felled by Norwegian axes. A general rout ensued: seventy Danish ships were captured and others sunk, but many got away up a side channel. Finn Arnesson was taken prisoner – the result, it was said, of his short-sightedness – but Svein got away in controversial circumstances. Some say he was originally taken prisoner, not recognized, and thus able to steal away in the dark later. Others said that Hakon Ivarsson trapped him but then let him escape as he did not want to witness his execution at Harald’s hands.56

The Nissa was a stunning victory for Harald and established him without doubt as the greatest warrior in Europe. Casualties were certainly enormous, though unquantifiable, since Harald had to press the local peasantry into service to bury the mounds of bodies. The disingenuous Svein claimed that he had been beaten only by superior numbers and vowed to continue the war, though he was severely shaken and admitted to his intimates that he would never again make the mistake of meeting Hardrada in a pitched battle. The burning question of the hour was what Harald would do about Finn Arnesson. Brought before him in chains, Finn was offered his life in exchange for loyalty but he contemptuously rejected the offer and compounded his arrogance by insulting the king’s wife and son, Thora and Magnus. Harald kept him with him for a couple of days, uncertain what doom to mete out, but eventually tired of Finn’s doleful countenance, released him and allowed him to return to Svein.57

Hakon was initially the hero of the hour, received his earldom of the Uplands, married Ragnhild, and seemed set fair to displace Ulf Ospaksson as the second man in the land. But Harald’s old courtiers, jealous of the triumphant return of a man they had thought safely exiled, began to intrigue against him. They whispered to Harald that Hakon styled himself as the victor of Nissa, claimed Harald could not have won without him, and boasted that he had decided the future of Scandinavia by allowing Svein Estrithson to escape. Eventually the poison worked. One day at court Harald sprang up in a rage and ordered Hakon’s immediate execution, but the earl, forewarned, fled to King Steinkel of Sweden.58

The zest for fighting seemed to go out of Harald after he had failed to capture and execute Svein. Or perhaps he simply reflected that he had gained enough martial glory and that, however many victories he won over Svein, he could never persuade the people of Denmark to accept him as their overlord. Accordingly, he opened negotiations with Svein for a permanent peace and suspended hostilities pending the outcome. He spent the period of armistice in a lengthy tour of Norway, basing himself at Oslo in the winter of 1062, in Drontheim in the summer of 1063 and in Viken in the autumn. The protracted negotiations were difficult, as both kings were proud and haughty men, prone to brinkmanship and prima donna antics. At last, though, terms were agreed and the two monarchs met at the Gotha river to ratify the peace treaty. It was agreed that Harald was rightful king of Norway and Svein of Denmark and that the peace between them would last as long as they both lived; mighty oaths of friendship were sworn and high-ranking hostages given on each side. There were to be no war damages, and everything was to be settled on an ‘as is’ basis.59

Doubtless the meeting on the Gotha river allowed each man to observe the personal ravages time and the long, fruitless war had wrought on the other. Svein was still handsome and strong, though now very stout. Well-spoken, a natural athlete who had set himself to master skill in weaponry in all its branches, he was, unlike Harald, devout and conformist in his dealings with the Church, quite prepared to be governed in matters ecclesiastical by the Archbishop of Bremen. In Adam of Bremen and Saxo Grammaticus he found propagandists who performed for him the role the Williams of Poitiers and Jumièges played for their namesake the Duke of Normandy, but not even they could disguise Svein’s lustful womanizing and the informal harem by which he seemed single-handedly determined to repopulate Denmark.60

By this time, too, the personality and character of Harald were known throughout Europe. His great height (six feet six inches at a time when the mean stature for males in Scandinavia was five feet eight inches) was legendary, and in Scandinavian iconography he was a familiar figure, with his yellow hair, short beard, long moustaches, large hands and feet and the peculiarity of one eyebrow higher than the other. Brave, bold, resourceful, ingenious and even lucky in war, he was shrewd and quick-thinking, particularly good at dealing with the pressures of having to make snap decisions. It was generally agreed that his finest attribute was his ability to improvise in time of danger and to choose the course under stress which, in cool retrospect, everyone agreed was the best one that could have been made. Avaricious and greedy for power and possessions, Harald was a natural autocrat who had no more idea than his half-brother St Olaf how to win friends and influence people. It could be said of Harald that he had no middle range, since his two modes were severity and cruelty to those who opposed him and generosity to friends, sycophants and hangers-on who did his bidding. Unlike Olaf, however, he knew how to temper a fanatical vision and firmness of purpose with consummate cunning, so that there was no Stiklestad in his biography.

By 1064 Harald had entered his fiftieth year and must often have thought of the succession. His two sons by Thora were similar in looks though very different in personality. Magnus learned the arts of a warrior but was essentially a peace-loving man. Even more distinctive was his other son, Olaf, later known as ‘the quiet’; he was reticent and spoke little in council, seeming to come to life only in his cups, when he was over-loquacious. A man who preferred drink to women, and would later reverse his father’s attitude to the Church, Olaf was peaceful and cheerful to the end of his days, no doubt resting on the laurels of his great physical beauty, for contemporary poets described him as a second Balder, with his perfectly proportioned body, thick, yellow silky hair, fair skin and beautiful blue eyes. Harald’s daughter, Maria, too was exceptional, described by one contemporary in the following terms, redolent of Malory: ‘She was of all women, the wisest, the fairest to look upon and the friendliest.’61

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